Though on the verge of extinction, pangolins or scaly anteaters -- among the most traded animals in the world that has now found a local market in India -- is yet to catch the attention of the Union government.
With the Environment Ministry keeping its eyes shut to the crisis, saying the animal was "not yet threatened" or calling it a "state-subject", poaching and trading of Pangolins has grown into an organised wildlife crime, being carried out by the same syndicates that are involved in tiger poaching, according to experts.
Reports show that at least 6,000 pangolins have been slaughtered in India since 2009 for their expensive scales, which are sold for their so-called aphrodisiac properties, though this aspect is yet unproven, scientifically.
In just over a month, till February 11 this year, at least five individual cases of poaching of the Indian pangolin have come to light, with about 13 kg of scales seized, estimated to be harvested by killing 14 to 26 animals.
The Union Environment Ministry, though, still considers it too early to act.
"It is not something that is going extinct. We (Centre) take up protection of species which are threatened. Pangolin is not threatened yet," Director General of Forests in the Environment Ministry, Siddhant Das, told IANS, adding, "It's a state subject."
He also said that so far the Centre has no plans for its conservation.
However, experts and records disagree. India is home to two of the eight pangolin species found across Asia and Africa -- the Indian pangolin and Chinese pangolin.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Pangolin is enlisted in "red-list", with the Indian pangolin listed as "endangered" and the Chinese pangolin listed "critically endangered" -- a step behind "extinction".
Pangolin is a mammal with ants as its primary prey. Its tongue is longer than its body to help it catch as many as 20,000 ants per day. The species is threatened due to its scale, made of keratin -- like human nails.
According to a senior ministry official, demand for pangolin scales are largely in south Asian countries. However, recent investigations have shown that India is emerging as a new market.
"We have got indications that they are also being consumed locally in India -- partly for medicinal purposes and partly for superstition," Dr Saket Badola, Head of Traffic-India, a wildlife trade monitoring network and part of WWF, told IANS.
In some parts of country, pangolin meat is also consumed as a delicacy, he added. Among the parts of the animal which have been seized recently, most has been meat. "Countries which have taken up studies show that their population is dropping, mostly due to poaching," Badola said.
"There is a huge network working -- maximum seizures were from border area of Manipur and ports of Tamil Nadu," Badola said.
Realising the threat, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international agreement between governments, listed pangolin under Appendix-I in October 2016, barring its trade across the globe. In India too, the species is listed in Schedule-I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972.
In India, it is currently the most poached animal, with central India -- Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra -- emerging as the the most preferred poaching grounds.
According to Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), out of five poaching cases in 2018, two were from Balaghat, Madhya Pradesh, of about 7 kg of scales. Among these cases was one where local smugglers -- including a government official -- offered to sell 12 kg of scales for Rs 50,000 a kg. Only 5 kg of the scales could be seized by authorities, though.
"Its now an organised wildlife crime and it's time to get serious," Tito Joseph from WPSI told IANS.
In 2016, there were a total 22 cases of seizures, included the three biggest ones so far -- 123 kg of scales in May, 93 kg in June from Mizoram and 86 kg at New Delhi Railway station, seized by a CBI team. Four people were arrested in Delhi, all of whom are out on bail now.
According to eminent scientist Dr Y.V. Jhala from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), there is "not a single study" on the habitat, behaviour or population estimate of the pangolin.
Officials tracking pangolin poaching say they lack resources to tackle the problem. "We had to refer the recent case (of poaching) to the Special Task Force since we have very limited resources to tackle the syndicate involved locally," a Madhya Pradesh forest official told IANS on condition of anonymity.